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LinuxWorld Summit: Professor predicts open source revolution

Jack Loftus, News Writer

NEW YORK -- What began as a keynote panel on the evolving world of open source quickly escalated into a debate on the future of open source licensing when a professor of law and legal history at Columbia University took center stage.

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This is not an evolutionary stage, this is a revolutionary stage.
Eben Moglen,
ProfessorColumbia University

Professor Eben Moglen, who also serves as general counsel for the Free Software Foundation, took charge of the final keynote panel at this year's LinuxWorld Summit after moderator Larry Tabb, founder and CEO of the Tabb Group, asked the panel to comment on the future and evolution of open source license models.

Moglen asked those in attendance to consider software in the same light as the "free" sciences of chemistry and mathematics, in that if you are trying to solve a problem, there is a plethora of research, information and partial solutions available free of charge from a community of like-minded individuals.

Such a community exists today for computer science, Moglen argued, in the open source entity known as SourceForge.net.

According to its Web site, SourceForge.net is the largest open source software development site in the world, with the largest repository of open source code and applications available to developers free of charge.

"SourceForge is one of several such locations were 95,000 programming projects are proceeding," Moglen said.

Moglen added that because of its large size and number of contributors, SourceForge has become a perfect candidate for survey research.

"It turns out the average contributor [to SourceForge] is an IT pro with 10 years experience, who is spending on average between 10 and 11 hours on a chosen project per week," Moglen said. "This is only place on the Net where a community is harnessing 5.2 million hours per week of programming time."

With numbers like that, Moglen set off on his own research project. He said his findings proved that there is no problem getting work done in the open source community, which led him to his next point – that the face of software will soon be changing considerably.

"By the end of the decade… the real work of industrial software [companies will be] editing existing open source software from the outpouring of millions of minds, and weeding out what really matters to provide a product to the software customer," he said. "There are a few zealots out there who would raise holy hell if one line of the code were modified so that it was no longer freely distributable. So not only is a large part of the community doing QA work … but a large part of the community is doing your legal review as well. All for price zero."

With all of these services being conducted free of charge through intermediaries like SourceForge, popular opinion will sweep away the ways of traditional business, Moglen said.

"This is not an evolutionary stage, this is a revolutionary stage," Moglen said.

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Moglen also expressed dissatisfaction with today's licensing practices.

"There are too many licenses; every additional license in the stack is an additional risk assessment, legal review – it would be good to have fewer licenses," he said.

In the future, Moglen said licenses will head in two distinct directions: Permissibly, where the developer acknowledges that the software is copyrighted but then can do what they wish with it in the spirit of BSD and the MIT X11 X Windows licenses; and a second model he called "copy left" where a part of the software would be developed under the General Public License (GPL) and could then be paced into proprietary software.


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